Theatre Royal, Stratford East, London E15
Opened 22 April, 2004

The Theatre Royal, Stratford East, is in the middle of London’s most multi-cultural borough, and it takes seriously the business of giving its local constituency a great deal of fun.  For several years now, the theatre has been doing a lot of work to encourage musicals that use contemporary music forms, especially “urban” music.  The Big Life is the latest result: a ska musical about life in London.

But this isn’t revivalist ska as in Madness, and London as in the Camden Town of their musical Our House. This is in the original ’60s Jamaican stylee.  The story, too, is about the first wave of Caribbean immigrants to Britain: the prejudices, the struggles to make life here work... and the love difficulties.  That sounds grim, but the show is anything but. It passes the acid test: it gets the audience on their feet.

The story is simple enough: four men strike a compact to make the most of their new lives in London, including swearing off women. You can guess the rest, and I’m sure you already have.  The quartet are a mixed bag, from a philosopher to a philanderer. Likewise the women with whom they share a lodging house, and who they fall for.  A preacher, a tart with a heart and a wide-boy musician are also in the mix.

Paul Joseph’s music includes some cool-school jazz and James Brown-style R&B ballads, but it’s the ska that keeps the heart of the show pumping.  Paul Sirett’s lyrics tumble over each other like puppies in a sack, including a whole number based on the gabbled oh-so-English refrain “ExcusemebutIthinkyou’llfindIwasinthequeuebeforeyou”.  Musical director Delroy Murray keeps the bounce up for nearly three hours.

The show-stealers are Jason Pennycooke as calypso con-man Admiral and Tameka Empson as Mrs Aphrodite, who isn’t even on stage but gossips with us from a gallery box during scene changes.  Like many Stratford East shows, it’s too long – ooh, they believe in value for money! – but it doesn’t drag.  It’s the sort of show the West End needs but can never quite make work. So enjoy it in E15 where it works a treat.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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